Times Staff Writer

Sonia Landau, chairman of the board of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, says that the Reagan Administration's budget proposal for CPB, which recommends cutbacks in the federal appropriation, is a "respectable beginning" for the industry to move ahead.

"Certainly no one wants to face a rescission, but when one recognizes the competing demands on the federal budget, the proposal for CPB provides an excellent base from which we in public broadcasting can work with Congress," she contends.

As the top officer of the organization that distributes federal funds to public radio and TV stations, Landau, a Republican, is bucking tradition. Her Democratic predecessor, Sharon Percy Rockefeller, and other public broadcasting leaders have spent much of the last four years fighting the Administration's efforts to reduce federal spending on their behalf. After an initial cutback during Reagan's first year in office, they succeeded in persuading Congress to slowly begin increasing their allocation again, rising to $200 million for fiscal 1987.

But the Reagan Administration's new budget proposal asks that Congress reduce that amount by $14 million. It also has proposed cutting the Public Telecommunications Facilities Program--used to replace and upgrade aging equipment--from $24 million to $14 million in fiscal 1985 and then recommends eliminating it entirely the following year.

(CPB appropriations are enacted two years in advance. The organization was given $150.5 million for the current fiscal year and is due to receive $159.5 million for fiscal 1986, which begins Oct. 1. The record appropriation was $172 million in 1982.)

The Administration says $200 million for fiscal 1987 "is incompatible with the urgent need to reduce federal spending."

Since Congress has yet to consider CPB's budget, public broadcasters generally are reluctant to speculate about the mood of lawmakers and how Congress will react to the President's proposals. But one thing is certain. As the budget process convenes, all eyes will be on Sonia Landau.

Ensconced for five months as chairman of the 10-member board after defeating Rockefeller, Landau, the former head of Women for Reagan-Bush and a corporate consultant, has been commuting regularly from her New York home to Washington to make courtesy calls on Capitol Hill. She is doing it by herself, taking no staff along, just as she has handles press interviews herself.

Landau's election last fall, and her close ties to the Republican party, have left some residue of concern that the Republicans on the board might return it to the controversial period when the Nixon Administration worked through the board to assert its influence in public broadcasting programs.

Landau brushes aside such speculation. "The idea of politicizing has been very much exaggerated," she says.

"Some of us are involved in politics," she says, "but then almost everyone is involved in it a little or they never would have gotten their appointment (to CPB). I certainly don't have any feeling from any of the members of the board that they are ever going to attempt to politicize it. I don't think votes or decisions are ever that way."

Her own career as a corporate consultant has been intertwined with politics. She was director of radio and television for the National Republican campaign committee from 1969 to 1972. She ran unsuccessfully for Congress in New York in 1976 against New York City's current mayor, Ed Koch. She was executive director of the Republican finance committee in New York, and served on the Reagan Administration's transition team for the National Endowment for the Arts in 1981.

Landau has served on CPB's board of directors since November 1981, and twice was elected vice chairman. Her term expires next year.

Sitting in a small office at CPB headquarters here recently, Landau talked of the role she envisions for public broadcasting in the overall arena of American radio and television. She believes two critical areas it can address are public affairs and education.

She believes that public broadcasting "has an obligation not to play the ratings game." Instead, she says it should strive to fill the vacuum in the types of programming available to the public. In these categories she includes programs for children, as well as education for adults.

Landau believes that federal funds should be viewed as the seed to raise more money for public broadcasting.

The CPB chairman says that one of her hopes is to establish a task force of a dozen or more prominent executives from the corporate world--including Hollywood--to assess the private sector for untapped resources for public broadcasting.

"This is a leadership position that I think we should have been taking for a long while," Landau says. "I've always thought we've never done our best shot with the private sector."

On Wednesday, Landau announced a one-time showing of the Star Wars trilogy movies on March 28 to benefit public broadcasting. The three films--"Star Wars," "The Empire Strikes Back" and "Return of the Jedi"--will be shown in theaters in seven U.S. cities for $10 per ticket. The proceeds will go to CPB to develop educational programs for children.

In addition to Los Angeles, the cities include Chicago, Dallas, Denver, New York, San Francisco and Seattle.

"I think it's very exciting that Lucasfilm, in association with 20th Century Fox, has recognized our efforts in children's educational programming," Landau says. "There is no more important area for private and public partnership than helping to educate our nation's children."

Landau also notes that children's programming is CPB's top funding priority. On March 1, CBP announced that it will provide up to $10 million next year for children's programming for home and school. The funds will come from an increase in the allocation for national television program production and from CPB discretionary monies.

It is also understandable that Landau, who studied political science in graduate school at UC Berkeley, wants public broadcasting to take a strong role in public affairs.

For example, she thinks public television should have covered the Democratic and Republican national political conventions last summer gavel to gavel--especially since the three major commercial TV networks did not. (The Public Broadcasting Service did make gavel-to-gavel coverage available to its member stations through the cable public affairs network C-SPAN, but less than a dozen stations took the service, according to C-SPAN. PBS earlier had tried to raise money to provide its own coverage but was unable to do so.)

Landau also favors a full hour format for the evening "MacNeil/Lehrer" news show, even though she realizes others in the public television sector do not share her enthusiasm.

"I think that one of the reasons we are in business is to provide that in-depth kind of look at news," she says, "to provide something that people can't necessarily get from commercial TV.

"This is a critical mandate of public broadcasting," she says.

Landau, who is married to New York Times television critic John Corry, doesn't think public broadcasting is "dumped on" because commercial television "can do all the fun things like Dallas."

"Obviously I think there is a need to educate," she says. "I would certainly feel that the more people doing it the merrier. It would please me to see that every time you turned on the television. But I don't think that is going to happen.". Landau believes that her politics, like those of her colleagues, should not preclude board members from speaking their minds. "There was a time when I first came on the board when members were very hesitant to even mention the name of a program. They would speak in broad categories--you felt like you were captioning for the deaf at a meeting," she says. "That's ludicrous. You shouldn't get on the board and all of a sudden lose your right as a citizen."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World